Humpback Whale
Center for Coastal Studies

Humpback Whale
Home Page

Today's News
Today's News

Spring's Journey North
Spring's Journey North

Report Your Sightings
Report Your Sightings

Teacher's Manual
Teacher's Manual

Search Journey North
Search Journey North
return to:
JNorth Home Page


Humpback Whale

Humpback Whale Migration Update: March 4, 1998

Today's Report Includes

To: Journey North
From: Anne Smrcina

Migration Route of Atlantic Humpback Whales

Map courtesy of
Dr. Carol Gersmehl and Debbie Bojar
Macalester College

Greetings from the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. There's lots of interesting news for you this week on North Atlantic humpback whales, not the least of which is the possibility that you may be able to name a humpback whale. I'll fill you in on this a little later in my report.

News from the Humpback Wintering Grounds
I was able to contact the Dominican Republic and talked to Kim Beddall, one of the founders of whalewatching in that Caribbean nation and the owner of two whalewatch operations, Victoria Marine and Whale Samana.

Kim's vessels work in Samana Bay on the north shore of Hispaniola, the island shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Can you locate this island on a map? She reports that this year there are tremendous numbers of whales in both the Bay and on Silver Bank, an important humpback calving and breeding ground. (This information came from a salvage diver who experienced some close personal encounters with whales out on the Bank).

Last year bad weather prevented many of the whalewatching boats from getting out to see the whales, but this year calmer seas have allowed the whalewatching fleet to observe many whales and many forms of behavior in Samana Bay.

There have been many curious approaches, head stands, surface active groups, and logging displays (a behavior where the whale is apparantly resting or sleeping at the surface). NOTE: whales are voluntary breathers unlike you and me. When we are asleep, or if by chance we were to be knocked unconscious, we would still continue to take in breaths. The whale must tell itself when to breathe. Here is a CHALLENGE QUESTION for you.

Challenge Question #2
"Why do you think this voluntary breathing is important in whales? And, if these whales are voluntary breathers, how can they sleep?"

(To respond to this question, please follow the instructions at the end of this report.)

Kim says that they have seen about 5-6 mother-calf pairs, the first of which was seen on November 6th near the mouth of the Bay. The next one was sighted on January 14th. Last year the first calf was seen in mid-January, and overall arrivals were late. Also last year the bad weather seemed to push the mother-calf pairs into Samana Bay for the relatively sheltered waters, as were other whales, but the sea conditions made whalewatching a less than relaxing (and safe) experience.

In last year's report I mentioned that whalewatching seemed to be getting out of control down in Samana Bay with some 70 vessels registered, many of them not intended for the purpose of whalewatching. This year a co-management system has been put in place with the boat owners, and government representatives from Tourism, the Navy, and the National Parks departments.

Tourism has been able to upgrade the quality of the boats, the National Parks oversees protection of endangered species and the Navy enforces regulations.

The 38 registered vessels take from 6-60 visitors out into the Bay to experience the thrill of whalewatching. Boat owners have agreed to comply with regulations, and ones that are not in compliance (5 so far this year) have been sanctioned.

Kim reports seeing some unusual animals this year during her trips. One mother whale had a healed wound that looked like a canyon running down her back from her blowhole to her dorsal fin. This may have come from a large ship's propellor that may have sliced into her skin and blubber. Luckily for this whale she was able to survive (and the trauma didn't affect her pregnancy). Many other whales are not as lucky. Scientists believe that for the right whale (for example) ship strikes are the number one human cause of whale mortality (deaths). Another strange whale seen in Samana Bay was one that appeared to be a normal adult male but with a double dorsal fin (one pointed in front and one rounded in back).

Kim reports that the whalewatch season in the Caribbean runs from January 15-March 15 and this is the time of greatest whale concentration. The population starts to drop off around March 15. Last year the numbers were very low by the 23rd. When do you think they may start appearing up at Stellwagen Bank off the Massachusetts coast?

Name a Humpback Whale
A Special Opportunity for Journey North Participants

Now to the whale naming part of this report.

Each year, a group of scientists and naturalists familiar with the North Atlantic humpback whale population meets in the spring to name the newly identified whales from the previous year. Although there are some 1,000 names on file, each year new whales pop up, including the calves. This year there are 100 new whales to name, including a record 46 calves seen during the 1997 season.

Humpback whales originally were identified by a catalog number. But as those numbers started to grow, the researchers decided they needed a better way to distinguish between the animals (especially when they were in the field). The habit of giving the whales common names began, but now a problem arose. There were several groups studying whales, and often the groups gave the same whale different names. It was decided that the groups would come together every year at a whale naming party and assign specific names to each of the newly found whales.

The whale naming requirements are simple:

1. Whale names cannot be human names (no Ted or Heather).

2. Whale names cannot be gender specific (no Mr. Tibbs or Miss Take or Filly or Colt) -- [This rule is in place because often the whale's sex is not known; the rule is sometimes broken when the sex is known and the person naming the whale really wants to see that name adopted.]

3. Whale names should be descriptive about one of some of the whale's markings (usually on the underside of its flukes). Humpbacks have distinctive markings on their tails, patterns of black and white, that usually don't change after the first year or two. For example, one whale has a pattern that looks like a cat's paw print, hence its name Cat's Paw. One whale has a marking that looks like the number 7, hence its name Seven.

Now to the good part. I've talked to the Cetacean Research Unit, the whale research organization coordinating the whale naming session. They have agreed to allow me to represent all of you at the party. So, if you are interested in naming a humpback whale here's what to do:

Step-by-step Instructions

1. Find the whale fluke photos on the Cetacean Research Unit WWW site

2. Study the fluke photos to find distinctive markings.

3. Brainstorm a name and develop a justification. (This is very important. If you want me to argue for your name, you have to give me good reasons for that selection.)

4. Send your whale name, the whale number, your name (if it's a class, the teacher's name and classroom number), your school name, and the REASONS for the name. Send your entry as a CHALLENGE QUESTION answer to the Journey North office.

Challenge Question #3
"What name do you propose for humpback whale # _____(Supply your selected humpback whale's number from the Cetacean Research Unit WWW site pictures.) Include the justification for the name you're submitting--and your name.

I'm looking forward to seeing your entries and representing you at the naming party. If all goes as planned, I should be able to let you know if any of your names were used in my next report after the March 22nd naming session.

I'll also have answers to the challenge question from my last report.

Until next time, this is Anne Smrcina, education coordinator of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, signing off.

How to Respond to Journey North Right Whale Challenge Question # 2 (or #3)

Important: Send ONLY ONE answer in EACH e-mail message.

1. Address an e-mail message to:
2. In the Subject Line of your message write: Challenge Question # 2 (or #3)
3. In the body of EACH message, answer ONE of the questions above.

The Next Humpback Whale Migration Update will Be Posted on March 18, 1998.